Today, a unanimous Supreme Court held that a statute which limits access to traditional public forums outside abortion facilities violates the First Amendment. While the ruling is a victory for free speech rights in America’s public spaces, it’s only a halfhearted victory, and one which does not alleviate concern regarding treatment of free speech in the context of abortion.
How did we get here?
In Massachusetts, Eleanor McCullen and other women desired to stand outside of abortion clinics to be able to interact with women seeking abortions and dissuade them from having abortions. They politely shared their beliefs with the women seeking abortions. Eleanor would usually initiate a conversation with: “Good morning, may I give you my literature? Is there anything I can do for you? I’m available if you have any questions.” If a woman appeared receptive, Eleanor would provide additional information. Eleanor and other counselors believe it is important to maintain a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact with the women considering abortions. Because their love and care is conveyed to these women, Eleanor and others claim to have persuaded hundreds to forgo abortions.
Yet many in Massachusetts did not like the fact that women were being dissuaded from having abortions. In an attempt to restrict Eleanor’s activity, the Massachusetts legislature passed a statute making it a crime to knowingly stand on a “public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any place, other than a hospital, where abortions are performed. Employees acting within the scope of their employment and several other groups of people are exempt from this restriction. Massachusetts claimed its statute furthered public safety and order, but the real aim was restricting pro-life speech.
Eleanor did not fall within any of the categories of people exempted from the statute’s effect. Indeed, the statute was aimed at restricting people exactly like Eleanor, because abortion providers did not like having potential customers deterred from having abortions. Eleanor and others challenged the statute on constitutional grounds.
What did the Supreme Court say?
While the Supreme Court held that the Massachusetts statute violated the First Amendment, this ruling is not a strong victory for pro-life speech. The Court held that the statute in this case was not narrowly tailored—which is required when restricting speech in a “traditional public forum” like the sidewalk areas here—but it refused to rule that the statute contained a content-based restriction in that it only discriminated against abortion-related speech. If the statute contained a content-based restriction, it would have been subjected to strict scrutiny, a desirable standard for those seeking to communicate pro-life views in the face of hostile legislatures. The Court reasoned that the statute could be violated by someone standing in the restricted area outside abortion facilities, regardless of what subject or message they conveyed. Yet such thinking overlooks the issue of who is likely to stand outside abortion facilities.
Massachusetts argued that it had an interest in promoting safety and order in these sidewalk areas, and the Court recognized that this was a significant government interest. The Court merely ruled that this statute was too broad and restricted too much speech in addition to promoting safety—the statute had to be “narrowly tailored” to address Massachusetts’s safety concerns. The statute could be constitutional if it was modified to address safety concerns without catching people like Eleanor or others within its net.
Despite its unfortunate reasoning, the majority opinion does tell us something helpful. In several places Chief Justice Roberts makes note of and seems to lend support to the style and method of the speech at issue here—that of a quiet, compassionate counselor engaging in one-on-one interactions. While loud and abrasive speech is clearly protected just like other speech (of course subject to constitutional restrictions), the Court’s apparent support (if it can be deemed that) for this type of speech could be helpful to keep in mind when future free speech issues arise in the abortion context.
Troubling Majority Opinion, but Heartening Concurrences
While this case featured a good result, the Court is wrong to not find that the restriction here was content—and even possibly viewpoint—based. As Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas, and importantly, Justice Kennedy) noted in a concurring opinion, “[e]very objective indication shows that the provision’s primary purpose is to restrict speech that opposes abortion.” It is not hard to believe that clinic employees—who are exempted from this law—will speak in favor of abortion near and around clinics when speaking to clients or potential clients. The majority avoided ruling the statute was unconstitutionally content-based because there was no evidence in this case of such activity occurring. Yet the majority opinion got this wrong. Justice Scalia’s point here is valid, as it is hard to believe that clinic employees would avoid speaking approval of abortion in the course of interacting with their clients. It is even harder to believe they would speak opposition to abortion.
Justice Scalia notes that contrary to Massachusetts’ assertion that it is concerned with safety and order, Planned Parenthood itself points to certain types of speech as the problem outside clinics. Planned Parenthood claims these protestors “hold signs, try to speak to patients entering the building, and distribute literature that can be misleading.” Justice Scalia rightly observes that the “safe space” provided by the Planned Parenthood escorts is protection from that unwelcome speech. He accurately ascertains that “[t]he obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to ‘protect’ prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks.”
Justice Alito went further in his concurring opinion, stating that the statute unconstitutionally discriminated against speech based on viewpoint by permitting clinic employees (who are of course going to express pro-abortion viewpoints) in the restricted zone, while excluding counselors from the zone who may express pro-life viewpoints.
What to make of all this?
The Court’s result is pleasing, but its opinion is troubling. The reasoning in the McCullen concurring opinions is solid and much more encouraging for pro-life free speech, and indeed, for free speech in general. The Massachusetts statute clearly aims at speech regarding a certain topic, and ultimately at a certain viewpoint on that topic. It is good to see that some justices agree with these conclusions. It is even more heartening to see Justice Kennedy so supportive of pro-life free speech.
While it is not heartening to see the Court issue such a weak ruling, a decision striking down this statute on First Amendment grounds is certainly better than the alternative. Hopefully next time the Court more clearly calls out content and viewpoint based restrictions on speech when it sees them.